Clarke’s Pianos - Chesterfield’s music specialists

Alan restores a Bechstein piano

Alan restores a Bechstein piano - Credit: Archant

Penelope Baddeley visits Clarke’s Pianos in Chesterfield

Alan with son Stephen

Alan with son Stephen - Credit: Archant

Nothing heralds in the festive season quite as well as the sound of traditional Christmas songs and carols. It’s the time of year when we hark back to sentimental Victorian images of families gathered around the piano for a good old-fashioned sing-song.

So it’s heart-warming to hear that this traditional entertainment is still popular, according to one Chesterfield-based businessman, for whom yuletide usually promises a crescendo in the sale of pianos, a round of appointments for piano tuning and a medley of customers searching for seasonal sheet music.

Alan Clarke of Clarke’s Pianos said: ‘The piano used to be the main entertainment at the centre of the home and it is still important to a lot of people!

‘People do still gather round the piano to sing at Christmas.’

Alan at the Bechstein that was originally built in Berlin in 1885

Alan at the Bechstein that was originally built in Berlin in 1885 - Credit: Archant

Alan, whose new shop on Saltergate is housed in a pretty period building worthy of a Dickensian-style illustration, once delivered an upright piano to a romantic customer who wanted to surprise his wife with the gift.

‘He wrapped the instrument in huge sheets of cardboard to form a square box and then tied it with a ribbon,’ said Alan. ‘So yes, Christmas does get a bit busier and as well as pianos being sold as Christmas presents we usually have quite a few tunings to do in advance of peoples’ Christmas parties.’

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Fifty-four year-old Alan has been in the piano business for a lifetime. He took up the rare opportunity of a six-year apprenticeship in piano tuning and rebuilding with Hudson’s of Chesterfield after leaving school in the mid seventies.

This defunct company had sold pianos in Chesterfield since 1906 and Alan, who now runs his own business with his wife Sue and son Stephen, finds it gratifying that he is carrying the torch for new generations of pianists and keyboard players.

Besides selling and delivering uprights, baby grands and digital pianos to clients all over the country a great part of Alan’s work is reconditioning, restoring and rebuilding pianos – work that requires a patient temperament but gives him an inestimably valuable knowledge base. There are 10,000 component parts to a piano and Alan knows his way around every element from the hundreds of tiny metal pins with their felt bushings, to the weighty and solid interior cast iron frames.

‘You get some people who sell pianos as a commodity and don’t really know anything about them whereas I know how to rebuild them.’

The idea that a piano is a mere commodity is an anathema to this dedicated craftsman and a band of clients who can barely disguise the strength of their emotional attachment to their beloved instruments.

‘We have had people in tears when they have come in to part exchange their old piano for a new one. Sometimes it’s because their piano is so old. It was grandma’s and their daughter needs to pass her grade eight exams and the piano is letting her down. They see their piano as part of the family and get emotional.’

Good quality pianos can last a century or longer and presently Alan, whose large showroom is bursting with every brand from new Bluthners to old Bechsteins, is working on a mahogany 1930s baby grand, which was brought in as a part exchange when a family needed to downsize.

Each of the 230 strings are being individually removed and replaced, the old split wrest planks (to which the tuning pins are fitted) will be replaced before it is re-homed with new owners in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.

Alan particularly enjoys working on soundboards – home to the strings and the hammers – where the matter of the quality of a small piece of felt on a hammer can make a huge difference to the sound of the instrument.

Alan explained: ‘You must have the right density of felt. You alter the sound of the piano by working on the hammer felt. This is called voicing.’

In these days of cheap imports, which have marked the decline of the British piano manufacturing industry, pianos from China are cleverly ‘voiced’ to suit the tastes of the European market.

But a finely tuned ear can distinguish the nationality of a piano by its sound. Alan, who fine tunes instruments by ear, can for example easily distinguish the bright, metallic sound of an American piano from the deep ridge European sound of the German counterpart. Their distinguishing tones – bright and brash or deep with gravitas – seem intrinsically linked to stereotypical national characteristics.

Self-taught musician Alan said: ‘A lot of people, even musicians, don’t always realise that pianos from different parts of the world vary in sound.’

Piano tuning is a regular part of Alan’s job and has led him to rub shoulders with celebrities, some of whom he admits that he failed to recognise. One unknown turned out to be British keyboard player Rod Mayall of Thin Lizzy fame. Rod’s brother is John Mayall OBE, the English blues singer, organist and guitarist who founded the Bluesbreakers, a band whose members have included Eric Clapton.

Alan said: ‘I had known this man for about six years but didn’t realise who he was. It was only when he told me his brother was about to play Birmingham Arena as part of his world tour that the penny dropped.’

As the tuner for the Winding Wheel Theatre in Chesterfield, Alan has crossed paths with many music notables. These include jazz giant Cleo Lane and her late husband Sir Johnny Dankworth.

‘They asked me to stay while they rehearsed just in case there was a problem with the piano. There wasn’t. I just sat and listened to them and they paid me, which made me feel guilty. They were so nice.’

And former BBC Young Musician of the Year Benjamin Grosvenor was dependent upon Alan’s tuning skills prior to his performance at Bradfield Music Festival.

In the course of his work Alan will turn his hand to tuning anything from an £80,000 grand to a modest eBay purchase and over the years has found to his astonishment that he may be required to move unexpected fish tanks from piano tops or retrieve lost farthings, old halfpennies – and once the skeleton of a mouse – from a piano interior.

On another notable occasion this mild-mannered musicophile was called out to a client who complained that the piano she had bought on eBay had a few sticking keys.

‘Inside the action of the piano was a mound of mice droppings. It was the last thing I expected.’

Under Alan’s painstaking care pianos damaged by smoke, fire and flood – even woodworm, have been gently coaxed back into life. And when parts are unavailable he and his wife Sue, a former solicitor, make them in their workshop in Staveley some five miles away from Chesterfield.

To spread the work load son Stephen is now undertaking an apprenticeship in the shop and the family is looking forward to its first Christmas in the premises to which they moved earlier this year in a bid to gain more floor space for displaying their large piano stock.

‘We may be able to squeeze a Christmas tree in for the first time,’ said Sue.

The shop cabinets are packed with musically themed gifts from treble clef pencils to porcelain mugs decorated with music scores, as well as a range of woodwind and small string instruments.

So what’s going to be the biggest seller this festive season, apart from pianos, I ask?

‘Umm, Ukelele’s are popular at the minute...’

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